About this episode
Welcome to POPCAST, Episode 20! This episode is part three of the interview with Dr. Alana Morris. Alana is an educator, author of Vocabulary Unplugged: 30 Lessons That Will Revolutionize How You Teach Vocabulary K-12, and an advocate for literacy and reaching the interests of every student. You can find her on Twitter @MorrisAlana.
Meet Jeff and Travis
For over thirty years, Jeff Anderson has inspired writers and teachers of grades K-8 with the power and joy of writing and grammar. He has written eight books for Stenhouse Publishers. He also writes middle-grade novels. Travis Leech is currently a middle school instructional coach in Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, TX. He has thirteen years of experience in education, including teaching middle school English Language Arts and as a gifted and talented specialist. Follow Jeff and Travis on Twitter.
Read the transcript
Jeff: Welcome to POPCast.
Travis: A Patterns of Power podcast.
Jeff: Discussing grammar in the context of reading and writing connections.
Travis: I'm Travis Leech.
Jeff: And I'm Jeff Anderson. We're today's hosts of the Patterns of Power podcast. We have with us again, if you didn't hear this episode... If this is your first episode with Alana, go back. There's two more that came before it that you're going to want to hear. This is episode three with Alana Morris, talking about the brain. She is a star in Texas and around the world for her book Vocabulary Unplugged. She's got her doctorate. She's director of humanities in a huge school district around Houston, Texas, in Spring Branch ISD. She's talented and interesting, and we can't stop talking about the brain.
Travis: Yeah, yeah.
Travis: Alana, welcome back. Today, we were thinking about maybe just talking about learning, hopping into that space. We had talked a little bit earlier about some learning that you've been doing recently and just thought it would be awesome for you to kick us off by sharing that.
Alana Morris: Yeah, so I think all of us deal with this as educators. There's things we know and things we do and things we feel comfortable with, and then there's also things we have to do about curriculum and testing and all of those things that sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. But at the end of the day, our students have to learn and they have to advance, and people have to feel that there's some level of achievement. So what do we do as teachers to help that happen in our classrooms with confidence? Because I think we drive home at the end of the day and we're saying, "Oh my gosh, did I do anything that has an impact today?"
Alana Morris: School year, where many of us are right now, you're thinking, "Did I make an impact?" What types of things make impact? I think when we get uncomfortable and we get stressed, we talked a little bit about student stress, but what about us as educators? I think when we get stressed and our administrators get stressed, we tend to gravitate toward what seems like it would make sense, but sometimes it doesn't, at least not neurologically or biologically.
Alana Morris: One of those things that we do sometimes that doesn't make sense neurologically is we just practice over and over again. If students need to be able to write well, let's just have them write a lot, just assign them a writing task over and over again. But assigning is not teaching. We have to trust the process of slowing down to go fast.
Alana Morris: One of the things I think about a great deal is we think if we just practice grammar skills over and over again, especially in isolation, some people believe that it'll get better, but in fact, it will never get better in isolation. It has to be in an authentic context. I want us to talk about a theory many of us have heard about a great deal in the last 10 years or so.
Jeff: I even quoted in my book 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, that to write better, you need to write more. I love to say... I was really intrigued when you brought this up, so I can't wait to hear this.
Alana Morris: Yeah. Many of us are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. I think one of the things that emerged out of that, because it was something tangible that we could hang onto, was this 10,000 hour rule. The belief is, or the statement in the book, and some studies that have been done, say if you do something for 10,000 hours, then you will become an expert in that. He cites a study about violin players. The violin players that spent more time practicing became experts, and the magic number was 10,000 hours. Do something 10,000 hours and you're going to be really good. By the way, this would be a fun thing for everybody to do who's listening. Take that number, 10,000 hours, and say, if we are in school 180 days, let's say seven hours a day, how many years will it take a teacher to become an expert teacher, to reach that 10,000 hours?
Travis: Ooh, math.
Alana Morris: Yeah. How long will it take a new teacher to reach that 10,000 hour mark?
Jeff: Are you such an educator that you're not going to tell us the answer?
Alana Morris: Now, you know I will. It's about six to seven years.
Jeff: Thanks, Miss. Six to seven years.
Alana Morris: Six to seven years.
Jeff: That's right when everybody quits.
Alana Morris: Yeah, so people are quitting before they even reach the 10,000 hour mark. So please give yourself some space and some grace and stay long enough to become that expert.
Alana Morris: All right, but here's what happens. The study that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book about this 10,000 hours is from a gentleman named Anders Ericsson. He did the study. Eric Anderson comes back.... Okay. Anders Ericsson comes back and says, "Wait a minute, Malcolm, maybe you didn't read the whole study." Now, he didn't say it... But he's saying-
Jeff: Nobody's ever not read the whole study. Everybody's always read all the study.
Travis: Just the CliffsNotes.
Alana Morris: Right. He writes this brilliant book. You should get it. You should get your hands on it, as an educator. It's called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
Alana Morris: Here's what he says. I'm going to read just this one little snippet, because he says it seems logical that if you do something for a long time, let's say 10,000 hours or more, that you would be really good at it. Let's say grammar or reading or writing, whatever it is. He says, "But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of acceptable performance and automaticity, the additional years of practice don't lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who's been at it for 20 years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who's been doing it for only five. And the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve."
Alana Morris: Boom. Now, we want to be careful. That doesn't mean just because you've been doing something a long time, you're not good at it, but the brain and human nature is once you think you're good enough, you stop being deliberate. It is that deliberate, intentional practice that drives to improvement or leads us to improvement.
Alana Morris: Think about your students. Once they get to a level where they feel they're okay, they're just good enough, then they don't have that natural motivation to just push forward and say, "I want to know more. I want to know more. I want to know more about sentence structure." Our job as teachers is to help nudge that growth by being more intentional than our students are naturally going to be.
Alana Morris: Here's four pieces where Anders Ericsson says, if we do these things, it's going to lead to achievement and growth in achievement. I want you to think about Patterns of Power, and how the structures within Patterns of Power align and are congruent with what he's saying works. Here it is. First of all, if you have a specific goal. If you have an intentional goal in mind for growth and achievement, then you're going to have greater growth and achievement.
Jeff: Focus phrase. Focus phrase.
Travis: Oh yeah.
Alana Morris: Yeah. Then the next piece is, speaking of the focus, that we want to be incredibly focused on something specific. It's not-
Jeff: That's the hard part about a focus phrase, is making it specific enough that it's a doable action rather than just too long or laden with abstraction. Sorry I keep interrupting, but-
Alana Morris: No, you're not.
Jeff: ... you're just making my brain explode.
Alana Morris: No, you want to do that and make those connections, especially for the listeners, because they're going to be making connections, and you're here to help nudge that for them.
Alana Morris: Then here's the next piece. If you really want purposeful practice, which is what you're talking about with Patterns of Power, then feedback is essential. Feedback is essential. We're not talking about grades. You're talking about those nudges, those conversations about the feedback, what works and what doesn't, and how is this similar, how is this different. Those conversations are hugely important. Then I think-
Jeff: Is celebration in performance a form of that?
Alana Morris: I think it is a form of feedback. It's not feedback like, "Make this longer. Make this bigger. Make this broader." It's feedback as in feedback to the brain of the celebratory moment, "This is a success moment," and that's another layer of feedback that maybe we don't consider enough.
Travis: Or confirmation that what I'm doing makes sense and is warranted, is accepted, maybe that piece.
Jeff: And I'm connecting with an audience. We have a lot of sharing these little bits. In our little 10 minutes a day, there's one of them dedicated to allowing them to share with the rest of the class what they've done, and then they get to be heard and seen and successful. Then once they experience that success, then it begets success.
Jeff: I love what you said, though, in that study. I didn't even think about that, that we're really going towards the growth with the specificity of the goal and the words that we use to get there, in the focus phrase, in the lessons that we fit in there. That's that intentionality you're talking about. We're having intentional practice, not just saying, "Here, practice this editing sheet. Here, practice this editing sheet here. Edit your own paper. Just edit your own paper. Edit your own paper," but we're filling them up through the mirror neurons and all that other activation of the brain. The friendliness and the calmness, we're filling them up with that. Now I'm seeing why it works so well. I'm sorry, you keep going.
Alana Morris: No. To that point, I want to come back to that because-
Jeff: You had done the first two.
Alana Morris: Yeah. Having just finished teaching a writing institute, even when adults, those things are so important to build. Capacity is one thing, efficacy is another, but they're so closely connected. You have to believe that you have the capacity to do these things within writing that is incredibly complex and layered.
Alana Morris: Ericsson, there's this one final piece that I think is important, and his final nudge or direction for us to be purposeful and mindful and intentional in our practice is for that growth, to get to that peak performance, we have to be okay with getting out of our comfort zone.
Alana Morris: Risk, yes. I think about that in the classroom, how that's happening on two layers. One, it's happening for us as teachers. How do I get out of my comfort zone about "I don't have to know everything that there is to know about grammar. I don't have to know everything"?
Travis: Preach. You're right.
Alana Morris: Right?
Alana Morris: Right. We can look it up. We discover it. I would assert that if we don't have these kind of conversations that happen in Patterns of Power, if we don't have those conversations, we don't build our own capacity to have conversations with the students sitting before us. So it is taking a risk, it is getting out of our comfort zone, but at the same time, we're navigating students getting out of their comfort zone.
Alana Morris: It's okay to try more advanced structures. It's okay to not necessarily know what it's all called initially. But again, in these conversations, we start even owning that academic conversation. I love Patterns of Power in that it does all of these; it orchestrates all of these things so there's this symphony of writing growth that happens in those processes.
Jeff: Alana, anything that you want to tell us that we didn't ask you about or you think is interesting on the horizon? We're going to tell people again who you are and where they can find you on Twitter. They can find you at @MorrisAlana, @M-O-R-R-I-S-A-L-A-N-A. You can find her there. But is there any last things that we didn't ask you about that you wanted to tell us?
Alana Morris: No, just to keep reading and learning about... Learning happens in the brain, so we need to study that, because it's what we do. We impact changes chemically in students' brains, and all the other psychology also, and some social emotional, but everything goes back to the brain. So I think to continue to learn and... There's even the Brain & Learning Conference that happens a couple of times every year. Look into that. Look into the researchers, what they're doing.
Alana Morris: But there's a cautionary tale too, and that is not just go with what one person says and what one study says. There are so many studies pointing in so many directions that you want to, again, look for patterns. What are the patterns out there? What are people telling us about literacy and learning? Just keep reading and keep learning, because here's a fact. As soon as something is in print, as soon as it's published, it's probably already [crosstalk]. Just keep your eye to not just Google. There's a lot of work being done out there. Again, go to Learning & the Brain, those researchers that we know that we can rely on. Don't just go to some magazine or some blog out there, because it might not be grounded in complete truth, if that makes sense.
Jeff: Well, thank you so much for your time, Alana, your expertise, your joy, your verve for learning. Thank you for what you do for the children of the United States of America. We bless you, and you are a blessing to us personally, to Travis and I. We both really admire you a lot. Do you want to close us out, Travis, because I think I hear the music coming up?
Travis: Yeah. Again, just to echo that, Alana, thank you for taking the time to share all this great learning with us and our listeners. We appreciate you immensely.
Alana Morris: Yeah, thanks for everything you guys are doing in this podcast, pushing good practices out there so that our teachers can help students, and students then can help themselves.
Jeff: Thanks to our sponsor, Stenhouse Publishers. That's-
Travis: Stenhouse.com. Stenhouse. We appreciate you. Alana, we appreciate you-
Jeff: We appreciate all of you.
Travis: Jeff, I appreciate you. Listeners-
Jeff: Audience, we appreciate you. We're all appreciative here, because we're the grateful guys and gals of the internet.
Travis: The end of this episode also brings us to the end of season one of the POPCast. We're taking a short hiatus and then starting more conversations around grammar with other amazing people. Thank you, listeners, for your support, and we'll be back in season two.
Jeff: All right. Take care, guys.